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Finding Inspiration in a Student Perspective

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This post is by Monica Alatorre, Senior Communications Manager at Envision Academy and featuring Michala, an 11th grade Envision student

Every week, contributors to this blog delve into the issues and promises of Deeper Learning, in the hopes of spreading this movement to more students, teachers, and schools around the country. We share a common goal--to promote learning environments that are engaging and that help students transform from being passive recipients to being active seekers of information and knowledge.

How do we know when we are successful? School-based results, college acceptance and persistence rates, district trends--these all tell an important part of the story. But at Envision Education, we've noticed that nothing conveys the power of Deeper Learning quite like students themselves. Nothing is as compelling as the voice of a student, describing what is important to her or how her school is helping her grow.

I was reminded of this recently when our Oakland school, Envision Academy, hosted some visitors and facilitated a conversation between them and a few of our students. One student, in response to a question about the purpose of learning a particular subject, told the adults in the room: "The goal is deep understanding, not just getting through the content and going on to the next unit."

We followed up with Michala to hear more from her about learning, growing, and getting to college. Here's some of what she had to say:

How is your school, Envision Academy, preparing you for "deep understanding"?

Here, our class set up is different. It's all about how our school and teachers address individual needs. Our teachers make sure everyone understands and they don't leave anyone behind. We don't use textbooks, so our teachers do different things to connect what we're learning to things we are interested in.

For example, I don't really like writing that much: I'm a good writer, but I don't really enjoy it and I'm not that into doing it just to do it. But when I can connect it to other things I'm interested in, then I want to learn more. In English class, we went from learning about how to structure an essay to recognizing writing techniques in other people's writing. So when we read other things, like laws or amendments or the Constitution, and I see a certain technique being used, I know what that is because I just learned how to do it. It's about bringing in raw materials, not just using textbooks, and it keeps students involved. I might not be all that interested in writing, but I'm really interested in social justice and public policy and laws, so if I can connect those two things, then I'm interested and want to know more.

Here, I have an education that is relevant to me. This school is in the heart of Oakland, we have students coming from all over, and we are growing up in urban communities. So our teachers use that to relate to us. Our teachers connect school to things we see every day and can understand. In Oakland, right down the street, they're painting a mural, so our teachers thought: "Let's use that." And we ended up thinking about how we would we use quadratic formulas to measure things in the mural. We also got to go on a gallery tour to see all the murals in the area.  

[This kind of learning] helps us connect what we're learning in class to what is going on around us and in the world. I think that's beneficial because it means we learning this stuff not just to pass a test but to help us grow and be human.

You are a first-generation college-bound student. What motivates you, and how does your school help you think about the future?

Being a first-generation college-bound student is a lot of pressure. I've seen what I don't want to be. I've seen people struggling financially and having to depend on others. That's what motivates me: not the struggles I'll go through to get through college, but the struggles I do not want to go through, that I don't want my kids to have to go through.

I just tell myself: You are not the only person to ever go through hard things. If all of these people have gone through it, it's not impossible. I also know I can call any of my teachers and say "I'm a little stressed out and need some help." That's one of the things that pushes me through. And I feel like, just having motivation and being able to understand yourself is important.

It's a lot like understanding that you can't just turn in an assignment right when you're done. Like with an essay, you have to get it peer reviewed, and get help, and revise. These are skills you have to learn early in school, to just keep trying and keep going.

How has your school helped you think about improving in school?

Learning how to reflect is implanted in us here. Anytime we do large projects or artifacts, right after, we do a reflection that's all about: "What did I do? What could I have done? What are my strengths and my weaknesses? How can I get my weaknesses to strengths?" That's really beneficial. My philosophy is that everybody has room to grow: everybody. And one way you have to grow is to identify what you did wrong in the first place. I noticed this during my Workplace Learning Experience internship--I felt that my presentation wasn't as strong as it could have been. I felt that way because I know how it is to be a presenter, from my drama class and from my 10th grade Benchmark Portfolio presentation. So I knew: My voice was shaky, I lost my pacing, I was going too fast. But I could look at that and know how to do better next time: to practice, and breathe, and tell myself: "You're going to be OK."

What have you learned about leadership?

Leadership-wise I've grown a lot. I learned that to be a leader, you not only have to lead but you also have to learn how to follow. It's about making space for other people to be part of projects and making other students feel welcome to share their opinions and ideas.

Another one of my growth areas: I like my props and being recognized for work that is good and for being right in my classes. But now I also know that if the community is growing and if we are all learning, that's all that matters. It's not always about one student being right, it's about how a class is benefitting everybody. Once, I was supporting one of my friends by teaching her a math concept. And then she was able to do it on her own. She told me she had never understood it until I explained it to her. I told the teacher: "She has it, call on her instead of me." It made me realize I really knew the material--if I can teach it, then I have conquered it, and my friend was also able to know it.

Tell us about a project you're doing.

I did my Workplace Learning Experience at Girls Inc. I helped go over their curriculum for girls' internships. I helped them add things that would be beneficial to me if I were going through it and made suggestions of things that they didn't need in it too. I also talked with my WLE mentor about things I like to do and get involved in, and as part of that I did some research on Representative Barbara Lee and wrote her a letter. It was a request for her to come to our school to speak to us and educate us and show us that just because we are kids of color does not mean we do not have power. I haven't sent it yet--I've showed it to teachers and my principal, and I hope to send it soon.

* * *

We are so inspired by Michala, and by students across the country who are showing adults just how powerful a deeper learning education can be. Students' stories and voices are critical elements of this movement: as all good educators know, schools improve when adults listen to what students have to say. So we want to know: where else are these voices being raised? Please share in the comments any resources you have--programs, articles, blog posts, newsletters--that feature students' voices and perspectives. Let's do what we can to amplify the voices of young people.

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